Humans will set foot on Mars this century, predicts space exploration scientist

·3-min read
The NASA rover launches in Florida - John Raoux/AP
The NASA rover launches in Florida - John Raoux/AP

A British scientist at the heart of the Mars exploration mission predicts humans will set foot on the Red Planet in this century.

NASA's Perseverance space programme aims to uncover the secrets of the second smallest planet in the solar system and shed light on whether it has ever hosted life - or could do so again.

The US space agency's cutting-edge robot, known as a rover, launched from Florida this week to begin the 102 million mile journey to Mars, where it will land in February 2021.

Prof Sanjeev Gupta, the Imperial College London scientist working at the very core of the mission, has now revealed he believes the first human footprints could be made there in the next 100 years.

Writing in The Telegraph, Prof Gupta said: "Right now, in July 2020, humans are capable of many things -- we can swing golf clubs on the surface of the Moon and we can play acoustic guitars inside a space station. But walking on Mars still remains tantalisingly out of reach.

"That will not be the case forever. And the Perseverance mission is going to show us the art of the possible, with awe-inducing science and technology packed into a rover that is similar in size and weight to a Smart Car. A rover that can hoist an arm loaded with instruments as heavy as a lawn mower, but place it with sub-millimetre precision on the Martian surface.

"If the possibility of humans setting foot, and one day settling on Mars, sounds a little farfetched – remember, no one had ever been to New Zealand until just under a 1,000 years ago. No one had set foot on the icy plains of Antarctica till just over 100 years ago, or on the powdery surface of the Moon until 51 years ago. This vision of humans on Mars is technologically achievable this century.

"By trialling and then refining technologies like those onboard Perseverance, we will achieve and learn things we only dreamed of until recently. We will turn science fiction into science fact."

To establish if life was ever supported on Mars, scientists will use cutting-edge technology to collect samples of rock and soil which will be sealed in titanium tubes then eventually shipped back to Earth to be analysed in advanced laboratories.

The Perseverance rover will leave the tubes on the surface of Mars and a second smaller "fetching" device, built by the European Space Agency, will be deployed later this decade to pick them up and bring them home.

Weighing one tonne and moving around on six wheels, the rover will be carrying out scientific experiments never before completed.

These include testing a method to produce oxygen from the atmosphere, using radar to locate natural resources like subsurface water, deploying advanced zoom cameras to image the landscape in 3D, and measuring Mars’ unique weather system with a suite of environmental sensors.

It will also search for unique signs of past life, and rocks that tell us what the Martian climate was like billions of years ago.

A 1.8kg helicopter named Ingenuity is stashed inside the belly of the rover, which will be deployed to fly overhead and give a bird's eye view of the Martian landscape.

Since the 1960s, humans have robotically explored Mars more than any other planet beyond Earth.

However, getting there safely is fraught with difficulty.

Of the 45 Mars missions launched since 1960, 26 have had some component fail to leave Earth, fall silent en route, miss orbit around Mars, burn up in the atmosphere, crash on the surface, or die prematurely.

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